In declaring the end of the School Reform Commission, Mayor Kenney said, “The people of Philadelphia will finally be able to hold one person accountable for their school system, the mayor.”
After 17 years of state control, returning oversight of our schools to a local board appointed by the mayor represents a significant step in the right direction.
But here’s a better idea. Philadelphia should have an elected — not appointed — school board, where all members are accountable to the people, not the mayor.
Better yet, Philadelphians should elect board members by district, so that residents in every part of the city would have a representative they can hold accountable for the schools in their neighborhood.
And even better still, we should ensure that all parents can have a voice in the process.
We rely on our schools to transfer knowledge to the next generation, develop citizens who can participate in the civic spheres of society, prepare young people to succeed in their future careers, and more. Shouldn’t the individuals we entrust to oversee our local school systems be directly subject to their electorates rather than indirectly through a mayoral appointment process?
Most communities, historically and today, have said yes. Elected school boards are part of the fabric of the American system of education. The vast majority of the approximately 14,000 school boards across the nation are chosen by their local electorates, and local school board members are the largest constituency of elected officials in the United States.
Council President Darrell Clarke favors an appointed school board because it would be buffered from the “outside pressure” of campaign politics. Undue influence by special interests is a valid concern. Researchers and political observers have long pointed to the outsize role interest groups — from teachers’ unions to civic organizations, from charter advocates to corporate interests — can play in school board campaigns.
But we have mechanisms to check the influence of special interests in elected bodies — publicly funded campaigns, contribution limits, and restrictions on who can donate, for example. Let’s use them for our school board races.
Some may also point to the problems of low voter turnout and limited information as arguments in favor of an appointed board.
There are some hopeful signs of increased turnout from Philadelphia’s most recent election. We could capitalize on this uptick in enthusiasm and develop mechanisms to engage community members through our already rich network of home and school associations and education advocacy groups. Local school board races could be a net boost to informed democratic participation in our city.
Many school boards are elected at large. But a city as diverse and expansive as ours could benefit from district elections. Dividing the city into school board districts would mean that all neighborhoods would have representation on the board. And board members would be held to the educational priorities of their district, from Southwest Philly to the Northeast.
Running a district-wide campaign rather than a citywide one would greatly decrease the cost for candidates. And board members could more effectively reach and respond to their district constituents.
District races would also create greater opportunities for parent, neighborhood, and community leaders to not just run, but win. The socioeconomic and racial diversity of the school board would likely increase, helping to create a closer demographic match between the board and the school system.
Let’s take it a step further. Even with an elected board, many Philadelphians would not have a voice in the process. Extending the franchise to residents regardless of their citizenship status would allow all families to have a direct say in the governance of the schools their children attend. This would not be unprecedented. Many localities across the nation have passed laws allowing immigrants to vote in certain races. And just last year, San Francisco approved Proposition N, amending the city charter to allow noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections.
In announcing his plan, Kenney acknowledged the city’s schools are facing enormous challenges. Harrisburg won’t save the day, the mayor said, so Philadelphia will have to do the work itself. He’s right.
But the transformation of our school system into one that meets our hopes and expectations for the young people of Philadelphia should involve input from every corner of the city, and every constituent group.
On Nov. 7, in communities across the country, including 17 school districts in Pennsylvania, voters elected their school board representatives. Perhaps one election day in the near future, Philadelphians will be entrusted to do the same.
Rand Quinn is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. email@example.com